Interview with Author Brian Knight

Brian Knight is not only a helluva talented author, but he's also a fine gentleman. One of the first writers I corresponded with right after I started publishing, he was extremely generous with his time and advice. I feel he needs to be more highly read and was thrilled to get to do this interview with him for my blog.



What is the first book you remember reading for pleasure?

BK: The first book I read for pleasure was John L. Byrne’s Fear Book. It was also the first thing I shoplifted. Yeah, I went through a phase.

Do you remember the first story you ever wrote? If so, what can you tell us about it?

BK: The first story I wrote was an assignment for fifth grade. I called it The Dead Heads, not understanding that was the name for fans of Grateful Dead. I don’t remember much about it, but there was a haunted house full of severed, floating heads, and my teacher told me I was a good writer and I should keep doing it.

At what age did you seriously start thinking about becoming a writer?

BK: I’ve wanted to be a writer since reading my first Stephen King book, Misery. My father had just died, and I was going to be spending some time in the mountains with my grandparents. I wasn’t really crazy about the idea, and I don’t even remember how I ended up with the book, but it ended up being just what I needed. I spent most of my time reading and hiking.

What was the first story you ever had published and where?

BK: My first published story was about a psychopathic man poisoning trick-or-treaters while dressed as a priest. It was called The Halloween Saint, and was published on some website. I can’t remember what it was called now.

What was your first published book, and how did that come about?

BK: My first published book was my collection, Dragonfly. A dear friend and excellent writer formed a small press, and I was one of her first writers.



12 AM Live (currently collected in They Call Us Monsters: An Omnibus) is a story that made quite a splash when it came out. Do you remember the initial inspiration for that one?

BK: My initial inspiration was catching what I first thought was some phantom radio signal while tuning my truck radio one day. It was about ten minutes of the most vulgar, hilarious, uncensored insanity I had ever heard. Then it was just gone. Turns out I was picking up someone’s Sirius Radio (I just happened to tune into the exact frequency they were using), and listened to Howard Stern, uncensored on satellite radio.

Broken Angel is one of my favorites, the characters feel so authentic. Can you tell us a little about the experience writing that novel?

BK: I wrote Broken Angel at a very hopeful and happy time in my life, so I can’t quite explain how the story took such a grim turn. The best I can do is to say that I had hoped for a much happier ending for a group of characters who I mostly liked, but the story had other ideas. It was still fun as hell to write.

While I was working on Broken Angel, I confidently expected to sell the hardcover rights to Delirium, which I did, and the paperback rights to Leisure Books. The Leisure deal never happened. The editor requested the manuscript, his second such request from me, but I never heard a word back on either submission. Probably a lucky thing, the way things went with Leisure.



You have ventured into YA with your Phoenix Girls trilogy. Do you find writing adult fiction and YA fiction are different in some way? If so, elaborate.

BK: I wrote The Phoenix Girls so my daughters would be able to read something of mine, but they’re both adults now, and I’m not entirely sure either of them ever got around to it. I know my oldest daughter enjoys some of my other stuff—her favorite is Broken Angel—but I don’t think The Phoenix Girls ever interested her. I’m glad I wrote them, even if my own girls aren’t fans, especially the third book, which I think may be the best thing I’ve ever written. They’re coming back into print soon, paperback, digital, and eventually audio.

The only thing different about writing to a YA and teen audience is that I have to keep the content somewhere between G and PG. The story itself can be as fantastical, or even scary, as I can make it within those bounds. It wasn’t hard. I just had to picture my girls reading them, and think about what I, as a father, would be comfortable with them reading.

Hacks is a novel that is tailor-made for horror fans. Was it as much fun to write as it is to read?

BK: Hacks was maybe the funest time I ever had writing a novel. It also went quicker than anything else I’ve ever written.



You have been rereleasing a lot of your backlist lately. Have you made any revisions to this work before rereleasing?

BK: Oh yes, everything has been gone over again by me, and by two of the best proofreaders/editors I know. Lisa Lee Tone and H Michael Casper. They have caught things that everyone else missed. I know Lisa does it professionally, and I know H could if he wanted.

Are you working on anything currently, and do you have anything we can look forward to in the near future?

BK: Right now I’m working on a novel—have been for too long now—that could end up being the best, and most brutal thing I’ve ever done. Keep your fingers crossed for me.

I want to thank Brian for taking the time to talk to me, and if anyone out there is interested in trying his work (and you should be), you can find it here: https://www.amazon.com/kindle-dbs/entity/author/B001JSCIOS?_encoding=UTF8&node=283155&offset=0&pageSize=12&searchAlias=stripbooks&sort=author-sidecar-rank&page=1&langFilter=default#formatSelectorHeader

Unpublished Fiction: Red as Roses, Red as Blood

Sometimes on here I like to post fiction of mine that never saw print. The story I'm sharing today, "Red as Roses, Red as Blood," is one I have considered including in a few collections but for whatever reason never made the cut. Still, I have a fondness for this one and thought I'd share.

RED AS ROSES, RED AS BLOOD

“I’ll manage,” Keefer said, staring out the window above the sink at Earl’s rosebushes.

“Well, it can’t be easy,” Carol said, sitting at the breakfast bar. “You two were together, what? Seven years?”

“Eight,” Keefer said, crossing the kitchen to the bar, sipping his lukewarm coffee.

“Must be rough, facing life alone after all those years.”

“We don’t know for sure he’s dead, Carol. He’s missing, that’s all.”

“Oh, of course. I didn’t mean to imply anything. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Keefer said in a quiet voice. “I have to admit, I’m starting to lose hope myself. It’s been four months, and not a word. It’s like he just vanished off the face of the earth.”

Carol shifted uncomfortably on the stool, fiddling with her coffee mug. “Don’t be mad, but I have to ask. Do you think it’s possible that the police are right and Earl just left, of his own volition? Just picked up and left town?”

“Five months ago, I’d have said not a chance,” Keefer said with a weary smile. “But now, I’m not so sure. I’m not sure of anything anymore.”

Carol reached over and put a hand over Keefer’s. “It will be okay. You’ll get through this.”

“I just want to know. I mean, no matter what happened. If he ran off, if he was kidnapped, even if he’s dead, I would feel better if I just knew. I could deal with it and move on. But this uncertainty, it’s killing me.”

“Well, if you ever need a shoulder, all you’ve got to do is call me.”

“Thanks, that means a lot. I just might take you up on that sometime.”

Carol took the mugs and put them in the sink. Glancing out the window at the backyard, she said, “I see you’ve been taking care of his roses. Earl loved those rosebushes, he poured so much time and energy into them.”

“Yes,” Keefer said, stepping up next to her. “They were his pride and joy. Nothing made him happier than tending to his roses.”

“I’m glad to see you’re keeping them up.”

“It makes me feel close to him somehow, like a part of him is still here with me.”

Carol smiled up at her friend. “It’ll get easier.”

“It has to,” Keefer said with a dry laugh. “It can’t get any worse.”

* * *

Later that afternoon, after Carol had left, Keefer wandered into the backyard among the rosebushes. He stopped before the largest one, a thorny tangle of large red blossoms, all achingly perfect and beautiful. He stood there for a while, hands in his pockets, enjoying the feel of the slight breeze ruffling his hair. Finally, he started to speak out loud.

“Quite a performance, huh? You like that one, Earl? I was practically in tears over the loss of you. Carol is one of my oldest friends, knows me like few do, and I had her completely fooled. No one even suspects that I had anything to do with your disappearance. The police are actually thinking you skipped town. To the world, I’m just the grieving boyfriend, left alone and confused by your vanishing act.”

Keefer reached out to the nearest rose and brushed the petals with his fingertips. “Carol actually complimented me on how well I’ve taken care of your roses since you’ve been gone. I went along with it, didn’t tell her that I haven’t done shit for these roses in the past four months. Haven’t even watered or fertilized them. Well, unless you count burying your body here by your most prized bush. Other than that, I’ve neglected these flowers as much as you neglected me the last two years of our relationship, and yet the damn things are flourishing. Can’t kill them, it seems.”

Keefer kicked at a jagged rock half-embedded in the ground, unearthing it with the toe of his shoe and sending it like a missile into the center of the rosebush. “I’m not going to say I’m sorry,” he said abruptly. “I mean, it was never my intention for this to happen. You just made me so angry. You treated me like the invisible man for years, always radiating this subtle contempt just below the surface, then thought you could just announce that it was over. That it was time to move on. Well, you’ve moved on, that’s for damn certain.”

Keefer plucked one of the blossoms from the bush, careful to avoid the thorns. He breathed deeply of its fragrant perfume. “It’s your fault, really. You loved these damn flowers more than me. You certainly treated them with more kindness and warmth than you did me. All your passion was reserved for these bushes, none left over for the man you were sharing your life with. Now you get to spend the rest of eternity with your fucking roses. Does that make you happy, Earl?”

Keefer crushed the blossom in his hand then allowed the wind to carry the mangled petals into the yard, little hang-gliders riding the air like waves. Dropping the denuded stem to the ground, Keefer turned and headed back to the house.

* * *

Keefer came awake in the middle of the night but wasn’t sure why.

He was lying in the center of the King-sized bed, legs tangled in the covers. He listened for any noise that may have awakened him, but the night was quiet as death. The only sounds he could detect were the hum of the electric clock and the steady playing-cards-in-bicycle-spokes staccato of the ceiling fan.

After a few moments, Keefer decided it was his bladder that had dragged him from sleep. He shuffled off to the bathroom to relieve the pressure in his abdomen. After a stop in the kitchen for a drink of water, he made his way back into the bedroom.

The house was warm, Keefer’s skin coated by a thin sheen of sticky perspiration. The house, an older Colonial, had no central air, and there was no window unit in the bedroom because Earl had not been able to sleep with the noise. Of course, Earl was no longer a consideration; it was about time Keefer started making some changes around the house.

Keefer threw open one of the bedroom windows, sighing as a cooling breeze wafted across his skin. Leaning on the windowsill, he gazed out into the night, thinking about nothing in particular, just feeling a somewhat childish delight in being up past his bedtime.

He was about to turn and climb back into bed when he suddenly paused, frowning. Something about the landscape of the backyard was wrong, but it took his mind several seconds to figure out exactly what it was. Grabbing a robe from the back of the closet, Keefer hurried through the house and out the backdoor.

The ground was rough beneath his bare feet, but he walked as quickly as he could to Earl’s rosebushes. The largest one, the one that had been Earl’s favorite in life, the one that had served as Earl’s unmarked memorial stone, was gone. The dirt in which the bush had been rooted looked like it had been clawed, leaving a nasty crater where the rosebush had been.

Keefer pulled the robe tighter around him and scanned the property for some sign of the vandal who had done this. A rosebush thief, who had ever heard of such a thing? It made Keefer nervous, because if the intruder had dug just a few feet to the right, he would have discovered Earl’s body. That was a little too close for Keefer’s comfort.

As he turned to go back inside, Keefer spotted something up against the side of the house. A shadow among shadows, a figure darker than the rest of the night. It was definitely shaped like a man, but its stillness suggested something inanimate.

“Who’s there?” Keefer called out, feeling like the stupidest of the stupid characters in some slasher flick. He started walking straight for the backdoor, keeping a watch on the shadowy figure. When he was still a few feet from the door and the relative safety of the house, the figure shifted, accompanied by a faint rustling. The movement brought the figure into the light shining from the open door, and Keefer froze, his breath catching in his throat like a piece of dry bread.

The figure, the impossible abomination, stepped forward, its arms outstretched.

Only that was impossible, Keefer knew. The figure had no feet, no arms. It was the rosebush, the prize rosebush that had been dug up. And yet it loomed large, its mass of blossoms and thorny branches twisted into the shape of a man, its roots serving as makeshift feet that allowed it to scurry toward Keefer, thorny branches opening like arms for a wicked embrace.

Keefer knew he should run, knew he should be slamming the door on this nightmare vision, but he could not make his limbs move. His brain had shut down, and it was sending no commands to his body. He could only watch in numb horror as the animated bush drew nearer. Keefer’s paralysis broke only when he felt the first thorns puncture the skin of his back and sink deep, biting into his flesh and drawing blood.

Keefer screamed and struggled, but he was enclosed now on all sides by the thorny arms, lashing at his face, scratching his eyes so that blood obscured his vision. He tried to turn, to lunge for the backdoor, but a vine of thorns wound around his chest and cinched tight, sending a bolt of white-hot agony through his torso. The robe was torn open, and no part of his body was left unscathed. The thorns were everywhere, flaying away his skin and drilling deep into him. He opened his mouth to scream out his pain, and several oversized blossoms were suddenly filling his mouth, clogging his throat, choking the breath out of him.

The night began to grow dimmer, as if even the light of the moon and stars was being extinguished. As he slipped into unconsciousness, he thought he heard the rosebush laugh, a sound full of dirt and worms. A blossom bloomed like an explosion in front of his eyes, and in the petals’ beautiful folds Keefer thought he saw Earl’s face.

The Alien (A Poem Inspired by Josh Malerman's Carpenter's Farm)

During this difficult time, author Josh Malerman has been writing and sharing a novel in "real time," writing a wonderfully engrossing tale called Carpenter's Farm and posting it chapter by chapter as he goes along. He has encouraged writers and artists and songwriters to share the art they create inspired by this work. I found while reading what he has so far that I was inspired to write a poem not directly linked to the events of the novel, but inspired by that sense of growing up, growing apart from friends, and feeling like you're the odd man out because everyone is changing around you and you are not. I call the poem, "The Alien." Enjoy.

The Alien
By Mark Allan Gunnells

I thought that we would never change;
We’d remain frozen in time,
trapped in amber.
The same at forty as we were at twenty.
Young, dumb, unafraid of danger.

I thought life would be an eternal adolescence,
long nights of conversations about art
mixed with copious amounts of drink and dance.
Like nomads we would follow our passions wherever they led,
taking meaningless temp jobs just to pay the rent.

But our true vocation would always be freedom,
the freedom that comes from no commitments
and is rewarded with penniless abandon.
The world of 9 to 5 and suits and ties
was to us an alien world of the mindless automaton.

I had pledged my soul to be an artistic vagabond,
shirking all adult responsibility
in exchange for a perpetual youth of spirit.
I thought our whole group was in uniform agreement
that nonconformity was the virtue we held dearest.

But one by one we began to drop like proverbial flies,
gradual at first, but as time wore on
more of us falling by the wayside in this war called life.
Marriage, babies, jobs at a desk
began to carry my friends away from the nomad light.

No more long nights, no more conversations about art,
instead terse and dismissive texts
that said things like, “Sorry, I’m busy.”
My friends let their passions wilt and die on the vine
while I drank and danced alone in what felt like a suddenly empty city.

Now when I see them, they are little more than strangers,
somewhat vaguely familiar like character actors
where you recognize the faces but not the names.
And in the end it is I who has become the alien
by being the one who stubbornly refused to change.

Book Hunter

I've been a book lover my entire life, but it was when I was in high school that I really became the voracious reader and book collector I am today. Back then, however, it wasn't as easy to get all the stories I wanted.

You have to understand, I lived in a small town with no bookstore, and our public library (though it did offer me many books that expanded my mind and helped shape me) didn't have the greatest selection. I had no car and was not always able to get to neighboring cities to find books. Therefore, there were many books I was interested in reading that I simply did not have access to.

A note for younger folks, this was in the distant pass before the internet. Well, the internet existed but it was in its infancy and the average person did not have their own personal computer. In any case, I could only make due with the books I found in the public library or at Walmart. I may hear about a book that sounded very cool, but it may not be available to me.

And then one day at the library, I was flipping through a copy of the New York Times Book Review and saw an advertisement for a toll-free number you could call to order books. The way it worked was you called the number, told them what books you were seeking, and if they had them in stock, you'd send in a check and would receive the books in four to six weeks.

Now that may seem like an incredibly antiquated way of doing things, but at the time it was a revelation to me, opening up many avenues that had been closed off to me before.

I began using that service a great deal. All the books I had wanted to read but couldn't find were suddenly available to me. One thing I got a lot of was LGBT literature. Trust me, you weren't going to find any of that in the Gaffney public library or at Walmart. But suddenly books like Lost Language of Cranes and Maurice and Dancer from the Dance and A Boy's Own Story and even fun little novels like I'll Take It were at my fingertips, just a phone call away.

Eventually the internet became a part of all our lives, and I started utilizing it to get books not readily available to me, and of course I got a car and moved out of Gaffney and found better bookstores and libraries.

But part of me will always remember fondly that time period when I'd call that toll free number and order up books. It goes to show that where there's a will, there's always a way.

2019: Year in Review

Every year at New Year, I like to do a blog that sort of details my writing journey for the year just ending. So here is the obligatory post for the recently departed 2019.

As for as major book releases, my previous post detailed those fairly well. I had two books out this year, both of them short story collections: BOOK HAVEN AND OTHER CURIOSITIES from Crystal Lake Publishing in the spring, and THE DAYLIGHT WILL NOT SAVE YOU from Unnerving Press in late summer. I also had many stories and poems appearing in a variety of anthologies and magazines. As I stated in that previous blog, 2019 was the Year of the Short Story for me, and as someone who considers the short form as his deepest passion, that makes me happy. And I had a dream-come-true highlight of appearing in the charity anthology DARK TIDES, sharing a TOC with Stephen King and Neil Gaiman.

I've also been writing all year, though my major project is still on the go. I started this year knowing I wanted to write a new novel, and I wanted to step outside genre fiction and write a strictly dramatic type of tale. The problem was I had several different ideas and no particular one was calling loudly enough to stand out among the pack. I made a few starts on a few different ones that didn't really stick. I mean, I'm keeping those starts as I will write those books one day, but it wasn't until late February that I finally found "the one", the book I felt passionate about writing. And so I began THE ADVANTAGED, sort of a moral dilemma novel without the usual antagonist dynamic. And I'm still working on that one, 10 months later. I rarely set deadlines for myself, and some work difficulties (which have been smoothed out now, I'm finally doing the kind of job I always wanted to do) slowed me down, and I have written short stories throughout the year, but I am making steady progress on the novel. When it is done, I do believe it will be the novel with which I try to get an agent.

Also mostly because of the work stuff, I did not do any of my literary events this year. No scavenger hunts or trivia contests or readings or signings. I did start and host a writer's group at Joe's Place (which also closed its doors last month, making Greenville a little less bright), but only was able to have two meetings before work forced me to bow out. I did participate in a cool event at my alma mater, Limestone College. They had invited alumni to submit works to the school's literary magazine, and they included a story of mine called "I Dream of Genies." They had a reception for the magazine's release in April complete with refreshments and readings. I read my story to the crowd.

The one major event I did was a big one. In February I was a speaker at the TEDx Talks at Furman University, on the topic of "How I Learned Empathy from Watching Horror Movies as a Child." I was so glad to be chosen, and then so terrified at having to stand up there and give the actual speech. In the end, it was an exhilarating experience. I managed to get through the speech without embarrassing myself, got off the stage so shaky I could barely stand, but feeling energized. It is one of those golden memories that will remain with me always. Here is the video itself.



Personally it was a great year as well. My husband Craig and I bought a home in August. Not just any home, but a gorgeous home we are absolutely in love with. We shared many great trips and saw a lot of great plays and movies and had fun adventures. He obtained his Master's in Nursing this year as well.

In the world 2019 has had a lot of ups and downs, and I'm not discounting the things we as a society need to work on, but personally and professionally 2019 was good to me, and now I say goodbye to it and look ahead to another year.

THE YEAR OF THE SHORT STORY

I love to write stories of all lengths, but my deepest passion lies in the short story. The latter half of last year I devoted to nothing but the writing of short fiction, so it only makes sense that this year would be The Year of the Short Story for me.

My two major releases this year were BOOK HAVEN AND OTHER CURIOSITIES, which came out in April from Crystal Lake Publishing, and THE DAYLIGHT WILL NOT SAVE YOU, which dropped in August from Unnerving Press. Both of these books are collections of short fiction, highlighting a wide array of subjects and genres and approaches, even including a few poems which I have not previously done in past collections. BOOK HAVEN contained 21 pieces total, whereas DAYLIGHT had a whopping 27 pieces. These collections represent a celebration of my love of short fiction, and offer the reader a smorgasbord to see all I'm capable of as a storyteller.




However, my short story appearances weren't restricted to just my own collections this year. I was lucky enough to appear in several anthologies (and one magazine) this year.

First was an anthology WHEN THE CLOCK STRIKES 13, released in March, which featured my story "The Boy in the Pond." In June Crystal Lake released the first of a series of flash fiction anthologies, SHALLOW WATERS VOL. 1, including my tale "Sisters of Loss." Volume 2 of that series appeared in July and contained two pieces by me, "The Vessel" and one I co-authored with Michael Harris Cohen called "Makes Three." October was a big month for me and anthologies, starting with a dream come true. My story "Messages" appeared in the charity anthology DARK TIDES, alongside a lot of great talent including Stephen King and Neil Gaiman! Talk about a thrill. Also that month, an anthology of erotic horror called GUILTY PLEASURES AND OTHER DARK DELIGHTS was released and featured my tale "Moonville." To round out the month, SHALLOW WATERS VOL. 3 came out, featuring one of my favorite flash pieces, "Haunted Places." In November the Christmas themed THE HORROR COLLECTION: WHITE EDITION included two pieces of mine, "Santa's Gift" and the poem "Santa's Claws." Also in November, the magazine THE DARK CORNER released their third issue and contained my Halloween-themed tale "Jesus Harvest Seeds." Finally, this month saw the release of the fourth volume of SHALLOW WATERS, highlighting two of my pieces, the poem "VII" and the story "What You'd Do for Love."

I couldn't be more delighted to have so much short fiction out this year, and I hope people sample some of it and find they want more. These works and more can be found on my Amazon Author page:
https://www.amazon.com/kindle-dbs/entity/author/B005C18L7Q?_encoding=UTF8&offset=0&pageSize=12&searchAlias=stripbooks&sort=date-desc-rank&page=1&langFilter=default#formatSelectorHeader
The magazine THE DARK CORNER can be ordered here:
http://thedarkcornerzine.limitedrun.com/products/652229-issue-3

Origin Stories: Where the Dead Go to Die

Where the Dead Go to Die is a zombie novel I co-wrote with the awesome Aaron Dries, but not a typical or traditional zombie novel. We really tried for something more grounded, with metaphorical ties to our current world, and heartfelt.



Once we had completed the novel, I wanted to submit it to Crystal Lake Publishing, which had become my publisher of choice, but Aaron had promised first look of his next completed work to another publisher. I had no problem with that, I was familiar with said publisher and wouldn't have minded working with them, so we sent it in and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Turns out there was a bit of upheaval at the publisher, some restructuring, some refocusing, and ultimately they took a hiatus from publishing. So we found ourselves with the novel free to submit elsewhere again.

That is when we sent it Crystal Lake's way. Joe Mynhardt, the driving force of CL, read it quickly and responded with extreme enthusiasm. We got a fairly rapid yes. The editing process went smoothly, and as usual CL delivered a gorgeous cover.

Aaron, being a talented artist as well as writer, did some interior illustrations, including one of a character I modeled after my mother, so he modeled the artwork after my mother.



I think the book turned out splendidly, and the reviews for it were incredibly generous and lovely. Two different young, up-and-coming filmmakers even expressed interest in the property, one of them paying for a temporary option. Nothing came of this interest, but it was still flattering.

I'm very proud of this one, and hope to work with Aaron again in the future.

Where the Dead Go to Die can be purchased here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B01N1LYOGP/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_hsch_vapi_tkin_p2_i4

Milestones: Dark Tides

I want to do a series of blogs about milestones in my writing career. I'm a person who doesn't like to brag and gets uncomfortable talking about my accomplishments, but my husband is always encouraging me to own the successes I have so I'm going to do that here. Starting with my most recent, the charity anthology DARK TIDES.



Earlier in the year, shortly after the shooting in Virginia Beach, I was approached by John Questore who said he was putting together a charity anthology to benefit the Virginia Beach Tragedy Fun c/o the United Way. He was looking for stories that took place around beaches. I had been toying with an idea set on a beach, so it seemed the perfect time to write it. And I was more than happy and willing to donate a story for such a worthy cause.

I wrote a story called "Messages" and sent it to John, hoping he would like it. After the story was submitted, John confided in me that there was a chance he may get reprints from both Stephen King and Neil Gaiman. I was elated, but didn't want to get my hopes up. The idea of sharing a TOC with those two was almost too much to comprehend. And if it didn't happen, I was still going to be part of a special project meant to do some good in the world.

As it turned out, both King and Gaiman did give permission for their reprints to be used for the anthology, and I found myself in the wonderful situation of being part of a wonderful charity anthology and having two dreams come true.

I discovered King's fiction in high school, and instantly began devouring everything the man wrote. I couldn't get enough. He is a master of world-building and character; I feel like I'm actually in the books, that I know the characters. To this day, he is one of my favorite writers and I think will be remembered as one of America's great storytellers.

I found Gaiman in college, initially through the Sandman comic series, which I think remains one of the all-time best comics ever put to paper. I followed him into prose, and believe there is a magic in the man's work. His writing is lyrical and fanciful, but engrossing. He weaves a spell with his words, and he also is one of my favorite writers.

When I was reading these two as a young man, I never dared dream I'd one day get to share a table of contents with them. Even as an adult publishing regularly in the small press, I still never dared dream this. I am forever grateful to John Questore for making it happen.

DARK TIDES can be purchased here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07YPXYWZK/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

Never Let Anyone Dim Your Light

I'm a writer who writes because I love it. It is my passion, and I have a hell of a lot of fun doing it. I love to publish, whatever money I make off it is gravy, but if I never published a thing and never earned a cent, I'd still be doing it because it brings me joy.

There will always be criticism, there will always be people who don't get your work, and some criticism can be constructive and help you improve your craft...but I am with Anne Rice in that I believe it is imperative you just ignore those who try to bring you down, who tell you that you don't have talent or that your work is worthless. If you love what you are doing then that has worth and you should keep doing it. The stories we tell will not appeal to everyone, that's just impossible, but anyone who thinks that if it doesn't appeal to them personally then it shouldn't even be produced...well, that person isn't worth listening to.

In that vein, I thought I would share a rejection letter I got years ago, when I first started publishing shorts in small magazines and ezines. I won't name the editor or magazine he worked for, and I think in his way he was well-meaning. But he was also condescending and convinced that his taste in stories was the only legit opinion. I had sent him several stories and he felt the need to "get real" with me and tell me why my writing was pretty much worthless. He basically told me the only way to become a good writer was to change everything about how I wrote and what I wrote about. This letter could have crushed me and made me feel like the kind of stories I liked to tell weren't good enough.

Instead, it made me more determined to write the stories that make me happy. They may not appeal to everyone, but they appeal to me. I share this in the hopes that other writers out there will read it and realize that as long as you are producing work that you are proud of, you should continue. Some won't get it, and some of those will try to drag you down, but don't let them.

"We have reached a point here where I need to give you some feedback. Of course, please don't take this e-mail as "talking down" to you because, believe me, I am a mere buffoon. Unfortunately, I am also an editor and have very specific goals and high standards of what I want. My goal as an editor and writer is to provide stories to readers that are first and foremost, *well written*, and second, somewhat entertaining. I seek literary quality. I am not an aesthetic relativist at all, but I don't have enough time here to explain my theories of why I strongly oppose it. I believe in the presupposition that there are well-defined, black and white standards to writing and recognizing writing of quality. You need not agree, however. I am going to give you feedback on your stories in general and why they are far from what I am looking for. I think you have the
potential and desire to do something great, but you are not going to get there unless you improve your imaginative scope and your technique.

1. I think your work has an array of unconvincing, cliche, wooden characters encountering **conventionalized** weird scenarios.
2. Abstractly, your writing has elements of cheap sentiment, **naive moral polarizations between valiant heroes and wooden villains** and/or it buys into a naive "good vs. evil" worldview.
Here is a big problem: 3. Every single story I have read of yours has **hackneyed**, implausible, and **ill-explained** supernatural phenomena.
4. You may not realize it, but your stories consciously or subconsciously (whichever) are written to appeal to middle-class audiences and lifestyles.
5. Your writing subscribes to the conventional morality of common people (any fact regarding whether you subscribe to this view yourself is totally vacuous, but I'll give you the benefit of the doubt).
6. You have not come up with a single original weird conception or original treatment of a preexisting weird conception. It is as if you don't read the great horror classics at all. I don't want to accuse you, but there are tons of "horror" writers who have obtained their "knowledge" of horror from the *television* and *movies*. If you do this, please stop. If not, then why do you write as if you write for (gasp) television? The people who write for TV and movies are in it for two things, money and fame, and they cater to an overall uneducated, ignorant audience who'd rather see explosions and gore than a good story. You have admitted to me (honorably) that this does not concern you. So why write this commercialized, affected,...bullshit? I know you can do better. 99% of these writers have never even read Ramsey Campbell, TED Klein, Robert Aickman, or Thomas Ligotti. Hell, much less Machen, Blackwood, Lord Dunsany, or Lovecraft. They cannot tell you why Poe was such a
genius, and cannot tell you the plot of more than one of his stories (I lived in LA for 8 years so I know). You were an English major. What if someone sent you stories and all they do is send rehashed hackwork constantly seen on TV?
If you do enjoy the vapid, unimaginative stories in TV and film, then by all means, move to LA or New York and give it a try. Of course, there are some great shows like Twilight Zone (well, about 75%) and Alfred Hitchcock. But these were written by some of the greats in *literature*. Those days are gone as Hollywood has a whole new system and nothing but contracted hacks who really don't give a damn about quality (yet, consider themselves "artists").
7. The villians/or evil? phenomena in your stories only exist to menace the protaganists. They are like that Snidley guy from those b&w movies who twirls his black mustache and goes Muahahahahaha! Muahahahaha! Stop doing this. Villians are people motivated by what they feel is "right" (most of them anyway) and should have realistic motives other than "I'm an evil bad guy and I kill people".
8. Utilizing guesome horror as a means to an end or for shock value. For some reason, you are obsessed with *sensationalism*. You have a slipshod style, conception, and execution. I think, like many writers, you have published *too much* and need to discriminate where you submit to. But you must improve first.
9. Your stories are lifeless because they neither utilize weird themes and situations in an original way nor embodies a distinctive world view.

Advice:
1. This may come as a surprise, but the purpose of weird fiction is not to frighten. It is not emotion.
2. The following paradox rings true: horror is not meant to horrify! It's *primary* purpose is not to send a tingle up the spine.
3. If weird fiction is to be a legitimate literary mode, it must touch depths of human significance in a way that other literary modes do not; and its principle means of doing so is the utilization of the supernatural as a metaphor for various conceptions regarding the universe and human life. Hense the need for a world view that structures and defines the use of the weird in literature. Mere shudder-mongering has no literary value, no matter how "artfully" accomplished. These points were stated (or paraphrased) by Winfield Townley Scott, noted and bestselling critic S.T. Joshi, and Lovecraft.
4. Ask yourself: how do I see the world around me? What is my worldview? My philosophical worldview? Religious? Solipsism? Nihilism? Neo-existentialism? Am I an atheist? What in my life has drawn me to tears? What is the saddest I've been? The happiest? What things do I love? What things do I hate? and so on. And write about those things in the context of the weird tale. I see from your last e-mail that you seem to be gay. If so, take Clive Barker's novel "Cabal" (made into the movie "Nightbreed"). Now Barker is not the greatest of writers at all, but do you see how the "Nightbreed" are metaphors for the homosexual community (Clive is an outspoken homosexual)? What does he seem to be saying about their situation? Or the novel/movie "The Hellbound Heart"/"Hellraiser" the Cenobites are metaphors for sexual deviants (correlating to the sexual themes of the movie and the philosophical points of sex being our savior and destroyer)? Those are thought of off-the-cuff and aren't
the best examples of great horror, but research those who are *literary* greats (start by reading modern mags like "Weird Tales", Thomas Ligotti, the horror of Tanith Lee perhaps? and those mentioned above--Campbell, etc.).
5. Although I am probably to blame, alot of what you send me are weak pastiches of Stephen King. I have taken his name off the list of what the magazine is like (in the zine itself, site updated soon), because there is too much shit of his that is terrible and highly mimicked. He does have a few good novels like Rose Madder, Delores Claiborne, Gerald's Game, and Needful Things, but the vast majority of the rest is crap.
6. Realize that character supercedes plot. It is basically true that "Every plot has already been written" but once the brilliant writer (who I recommend reading) Weston Ochse told me "but not every character has been written". This is so true. Character makes plot. It is not the other way around. There are billions of people in this world. Think of how each one is different and unique. Sometimes you will have to expand on them, but at least there is a starting point. Right now, I think you are starting with "Hey, what horror scenario can I think up to scare someone?" (We all used to do this.) I think that is the wrong way to go about it. You need to grow out of this. We are not pimple-faced kids anymore. It's like my father. He is always telling me everytime I see him plots that he has "thought up". And of course, all he has known about horror is what he sees in movies and TV and has never read the greats. So what are his ideas? Why revenge stories, and others that are
cliche, tired, predictable, unoriginal, conventionalized, and unimaginative, of course.

Which leads me to "success". I'm glad you didn't mention money as "success". Of course, by your age, you probably know by now that it is incredibly stupid to judge one's success by what car they drive, how much money they have, etc. If someone lived their life like that, I think they would be extremely depressed 99% of the time. The same goes for writing. One's success is not determined by how much money you make from writing, how much fame you have, how many books you've written, or how many magazine's you've been in. That's why I was thrown off by your word "persistance". Persisting for what? If it is any of those things mentioned, it is vanity you are persisting and nothing else. Personally, I persist to get better each day and that is all. Many people do not believe this but there are many writers who have shown they do not (Thomas Ligotti has an enormous cult fan base begging for a series of novels of
which upon writing, he would become exteremely wealthy and even more famous, yet for his art's sake, he refuses--as you can see, he would answer my question #2 the way you did, which is admirable).

Now here's the thing: those same vain criteria (how many books written, etc.) have nothing to say about *quality* either. Take the Aesop fable: a vixen approaches a lioness resting in the shade and feeling proud of herself, asks, "Is it true you only gave birth to one cub and not to several such as myself?" And the lioness says, "Yes," and looks at her cub, "but, 'tis a lion." It is quality that matters, not quantity. I myself have not been published as much as you. But I've been in Rage Machine books anthology, Cthulhu Sex, Lovecraft's Weird Mysteries, and I have *two* stories accepted by Dark Wisdom (one of the hottest horror mags on the market right now). Also, I have been asked (without submitting anything, totally unsolicited) by a major publisher (Chaosium) to write a series of short stories for some of their upcoming anthologies. And several other appearances. Stephen King himself does not understand this as he seriously chided Harper Lee in "On Writing" that it is
some sort of weakness that she has *written very little*! Unbelievable! Do *any* of his hundreds of stories even compare to "To Kill A Mockingbird" in quality?

Your endings are poorly conceived. Just about all of your stories would be much better if you use the ending as a starting off point and tell us what happens from there. You leave the audience hanging. Asking the audience to guess at what happens next or to end the story themselves is lazy and irresponsible. Look at an example given by Weird Tales for a bad ending (you do this):
"Aha," the computer sneered, its vaccuum tubes flashing menacingly. "I'm going to take over the world, and there's nothing you humans can do to stop me!"
"What are we going to do now, Professor?" moaned Harvey Smeedlop.
"God only knows," intoned Professor Snaxlefrax, "and he isn't telling."
THE END

This is limp. There is no resolution or anti-climax, much less any validation. It is nothing but a weak climax. Imagine Shakespeare doing such a thing in a third act! Weird Tales states: If you add the following lines--
"I've an idea!" Harvey scintillated. Moving quickly, he pulled the computer's plug.
The world was saved.
THE END(!)
--you have an ending, but not much of an improvement since there is not really a climax. But you get the point.

The dialogue is also weak in places where you summarize obvious sentiments of the characters and their situations. It's like if someone is banging on a wall and a person trying to sleep says, "Well, I guess I'm going to have trouble sleeping tonight." That is silly.


So I'm rejecting the latest story and I do not want to see anything from you until you have solved many of these issues. I have now let you know why I will never buy anything from you as long as you write in this vein. You may not want to change what you are comfortable with just for one editor, but I think you will see more sales and in better magazines if you do. And most importantly, you will stand out among others who are swimming in mediocrity as you are now.

I apologize if any of this comes across as insulting. Just trying to help."

Unpublished Fiction: In a Whirlwind of Autumn Leaves

Continuing my series of unpublished stories, focusing on Halloween-themed for the season. Here is a children's tale I wrote a few years ago called, "In a Whirlwind of Autumn Leaves."

IN A WHIRLWIND OF AUTUMN LEAVES

“Daddy, come on!”

Billy’s father stood on the sidewalk at the corner of Jefferies and Laurel, staring down at the cellphone in his hands. Billy tugged at the man’s jacket.

“Just a minute,” his father said without looking up from the small screen. “I’m in the middle of something.”

Billy groaned behind the rubber mask that turned him into green warty goblin. The brown poncho he wore to round out his costume was heavy, and despite the chill October wind that sent the crisp autumn leaves scurrying across the pavement, he was sweating.

Not that he minded. It was Halloween, and he’d endure any number of discomforts for the prospect of CANDY CANDY CANDY! It was the night of the year the he anticipated more than any other, with the exception of Christmas Eve. He’d picked out this costume mid-September, and he’d been dreaming of trick-or-treating ever since the first leaf had turned yellow-orange on the maple in the front yard.

Typically his mother took him out on Halloween night, but this year she was feeling a bit under the weather, so his father had volunteered. Which would have been fine if his father wasn’t constantly distracted by his phone.

They’d been out for half an hour and had only made it one block.

Billy watched in dismay as a host of short monsters paraded by. Ghosts, vampires, zombies, witches. All accompanied by adults who were smiling as they held their kids’ hands and led them from one house to another.

“Daaaaddyyyy!” Billy said, stomping his foot on the cement. “Everybody’s gonna be out of candy by the time we get there.”

With a sigh, Billy’s father tore his gaze from the phone long enough to glance down at his son. “Have a little patience, Billy boy! I’m having a bit of a work crisis, and I need to get some stuff taken care of.”

“But Daddy, it’s Halloween.”

“My bosses don’t care about Halloween. I’ll tell you what, you just run along and go to all the houses on this side of the street while I finish up this email.”

“By myself?” Billy said, feeling a shiver run up and down his spine. At 9 years old, he considered himself a Big Boy, but the prospect of wandering the neighborhood at night on his own frightened him.

“Just to the end of the block, about four houses. Once you reach the next intersection, you come on back here. I should be finished by then.”

Billy turned his head to stare down Jefferies street to where it intersected with Wilkinson. Just one city block, but it seemed to stretch on for miles. Yet the fear of being away from his father’s side in the dark was eclipsed by his desire for the candy he knew waited behind the doors of these houses. Besides, there were plenty of streetlamps and porch lights keeping the shadows at bay.

“Promise you’ll be right here?” he asked, only a slight quaver to his voice.

“Count on it, Billy boy,” his father said, his attention already returned to the phone.

Steeling himself with a deep breath, which filled the inside of the mask like a warm vapor, Billy left his father’s side and started slowly down the sidewalk to the first house. A gaggle of children were coming back down the walkway, giggling and peering into their bags and plastic jack-o’-lantern buckets at the candy they’d just scored.

Billy made his way to the porch alone. On the top step an animatronic crow turned its head, flashed red eyes at him, and let loose with a mechanical caw. A cellophane witch was plastered on the large front window next to the door. Billy rang the bell and waited, clutching his orange and black bag like a security blanket. He called out a tentative “Trick or treat” as the door opened.

An old lady with a billowy white could of hair and cats-eye glasses stood before him, oohing and aahing over his costume as she deposited several fun-sized candy bars into his sack. He saw a Mounds, which wasn’t his favorite, but also a Snickers and Milky Way which he loved.

Bolstered by the promise of more chocolatey goodness, he went to the next three houses with enthusiasm, no longer worried about being away from his father’s side. In fact, he ceased to think about his father at all, and never looked back to make sure the man was still waiting on the corner. He bounded from door to door, his “Trick or treat” becoming more enthusiastic and boisterous each time. At the end of the block, he finally glanced back down Jefferies. His father was spotlighted under a lamppost, still tapping away at the phone, not even looking in Billy’s direction.

Billy stood there for a moment, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet. He had always been an obedient child, never getting up to any serious mischief, and he rarely defied his parents instructions.

But what harm could come from him crossing Wilkinson and continuing down the next block? It too was well lit, with plenty of other kids and their parents going house to house. If he waited on his father, it could take them fifteen minutes to get down the one block when Billy could do it in five on his own? He’d be careful, checking both ways before crossing the street, then at the end of the block he’d cross to the other side of Jefferies and make his way back. Immersed as his father was in his work email, he likely wouldn’t even notice Billy had strayed farther than he’d been told to go.

Deciding to break the rules for once, Billy checked for traffic then crossed the street. The wind gusted, sending a flurry of leaves into his path as if trying to stop him. He kicked through them, laughing and enjoying the scritch-scratch sound they made.

At the first house on this new block, he got a large bag of M&Ms and a box of cracker jacks. Walking back to the sidewalk, his head was down as he peered into his bag, looking at all his sugary loot. The wind rose again with a keening howl, sounding like something in pain, and the leaves were lifted up into a whirlwind that encircled him like the cyclone in The Wizard of Oz. The brittle leaves scratched at his poncho and scraped along the rubber mask, and they spun around him in such great numbers that they blocked out his vision with a blurring kalediscope of orange, red, and brown.

Billy, initially delighted by the sensation of being caught in the middle of this gaily painted whirlwind, began to feel frightened. He stumbled forward, flailing and kicking out at the leaves, then stumbled and fell down hard on the pavement. The impact caused him to bite his tongue, and pain flared even as the coppery taste of his own blood filled his mouth.

The cyclone of leaves had finally torn apart, the various pieces skittering away into the night like scurrying insects. Billy stood slowly, rubbing at his bruised tailbone. He bent to retrieve his dropped trick-or-treat sack then straightened his mask which had gotten knocked askew in the fall.

Only then did the boy register that the street had grown dimmer. Looking up at the streetlamps, he saw that several of them had gone out, and those that still glowed gave off only a sickly yellow light that served to accentuate the darkness instead of alleviating it. There were no longer any porch lights shining like beacons. The wind changed directly suddenly, and all those leaves that had skittered away before now came back his way, as if giving chase. Billy glanced down Jefferies Street, back the way he’d come, hoping to catch a glimpse of his father. All he saw that way was a wall of shadow that looked as solid as cement. He was afraid if he walked into the darkness, he would be swallowed whole and never seen again.

“Daddy?” he called out in a tiny voice that seemed not to carry any further than the tip of his nose. “Daddy, are you still there?”

There was no response. In fact, the night was utterly still and quiet except for the rustling leaves. All the other trick-or-treaters and their parents seemed to have fled. As much as the darkness scared him, being out here alone scared him even more. He started shuffling back toward Wilkinson. The houses looked different shrouded in shadow, more sinister and they seemed to lean at odd angles as if set on crooked foundations. The pavement as he crossed the intersection was cracked and broken where he remembered it being smooth before.

The sound of the leaves now resembled laughter, the mean-spirited tittering of a witch as she bakes small children in her oven. Billy picked up his pace, not quite running but definitely more than a walk. Maybe a trot.

He had nearly reached the end of this block and there was no sign of his father. He’d been waiting on the corner the last Billy had seen of him, but now the sidewalk was deserted. Billy stood there, eyes desperately scanning the area. He sensed movement at the house next to him, and he turned just in time to see what he had thought was an animatronic crow before flap its wings and take flight, buzzing past Billy’s face so closely that feathers beat against the mask.

“Daddy!” Billy shouted, feeling tears sliding down his cheeks. He crouched down on his haunches with his back to the splintering lamppost and gave in to a fit of sobbing like he hadn’t done since he was in diapers. Why would his father have left him? Was it like in that story his mother told him at bedtime a few weeks ago, Hansel and Gretel. The idea that parents would abandon their children had terrified him, and now he was living it.

“Are you okay?”

Billy looked up at the sound of the voice to see a group approaching him from down Laurel Street, a group comprised of three kids and two adults. A familiar enough tableau on Halloween night, but there was something about these people that seemed a bit off. It took Billy a moment to realize what it was.

The parents were in costume and the children were not.

Although as they came closer, stopping just in front of him, he realized that wasn’t true. The kids were in costume, but the adults’ costumes were so much more elaborate and horrific. The children were dressed as a baseball player, a mailman, and a cheerleader respectively. The father was done up as a werewolf, with a very convincing furry mask with yellow eyes and snarling teeth, hairy arms and legs jutting out of ripped clothes. The mother looked like a giant insect of some kind, covered in hard body armor with wiggling antennae and multiple arms. It was an impressive costume, and Billy couldn’t even begin to fathom how she’d gotten herself into it. The spectacle of the two adults’ costumes temporarily took his mind off his troubles.

“Why are you crying?” asked the little cheerleader, bringing Billy crashing back down to reality.

“I can’t find my Daddy.”

The insect lady said, her voice clipped and high-pitched, “Are you lost, little one?”

“No, I’m not lost. My Daddy is lost. He was right here and now he’s not, and I don’t know where to find him.”

The werewolf got down on one knee so he was at Billy’s eye level. This close-up the mask was even more impressive, and the breath that wafted from the snout had the slightly sour smell of meat on the verge of going bad. “Do you live around here?” he asked in a growly voice.

Billy looked around at his surroundings, feeling like he had stepped into a nightmare. He should know this neighborhood, he’d ridden his bike along the streets all last summer, and yet nothing looked familiar to him now. He couldn’t even find any of the landmarks that usually helped orient him. Where was the white-picket fence in front of the Haversham’s house, or the Stevens’ tacky lawn ornaments? The towering oak tree with the tire swing hanging from one of the lower branches should have been just across the street…except it wasn’t. He should know exactly where he was, but he may as well have been on another planet. This sense of disorientation only led to more tears.

“Oh dear,” said the insect lady, reaching out with one of her multi-jointed arms to pat him on the shoulder. “I’m sure your father will turn up soon. We’ll wait with you until he does.”

“But Mom,” whined the mailman, “I want more treats.”

The werewolf swatted the boy gently on the back of the head. “Show a little compassion. This boy is lost.”

“He can come with us,” the baseball player said.

The insect lady shook her head. “He should stay put in case his father returns.” Turning her wide black eyes back to Billy, she quickly added, “When! I mean when your father returns.”

“He can come with us,” said the cheerleader. “We’ll just go to the houses on the other side of the street. That’s still in the area.”

“I don’t know.”

Billy sniffled and said, “I wouldn’t mind.” He was still scared, but less so now that there were other adults present. Nothing too bad could happen with adults present. Besides, he still wanted to fill his sack.

The other three children cheered and clapped and the werewolf said, “Okay, fine, but just the houses across the street.”

The two adults let the four children across Jefferies street and up to the first house. Not only were the oak and tire swing gone, but Billy could have sworn this house used to be red brick instead of rough gray stone.

At the door, a big slab of wood twice as tall as a normal door, the werewolf lifted a heavy brass knocker shaped like a bat and let it fall against the wood with a hollow thud! Then the two adults stepped back and left the children to stand before the door with their sacks held out.

The door opened with a pronounced creak, and the tallest person Billy had ever seen stepped over the threshold. Draped in a brown robe, the hood of which completely concealed the face, skeletal hands sticking out of the sleeves, one of which gripped a scythe with a gleaming blade. An impressive Grim Reaper costume. Billy wondered if perhaps the person was on stilts under the robe, but the size of the door suggested otherwise.

“Trick or treat,” Billy called out in unison with the other three children, although it sounded oddly as if the baseball player, the mailman, and the cheerleader said, “Tricks are treats.”

The Reaper reached the free hand into one of the many folds in the robe and then started dropping items into each sack. The hand went so deep in each bag that Billy couldn’t see what kind of candies they were getting. Then the Reaper seemed to float back into the house, the door slamming shut in the children’s faces.

Going back down the walk, the other there were chattering excitedly as they glanced into their bags. Billy scanned the street again for his father then looked into his own bag, expecting to find peanut butter cups or marshmallow pumpkins or candy corns…

…but what he saw instead caused him to yelp like a kicked dog and drop his bag. Out spilled all the candy he’d collected so far tonight, as well as the fat slimy worms that the Reaper had apparently just given him.

“Eww,” said the cheerleader. “Who put that gross stuff in there along with the goodies?”

Billy pointed back at the house they’d just come from. “He had to have done it, I know these weren’t in my bag before. You guys didn’t get the same?”

They all peered back in their sacks and shook their heads.

“Why would anyone play such a vicious prank on a child?” the alien lady said.

“Maybe it’s because you’re not wearing a costume,” the cheerleader said to Billy.

The boy frowned inside his mask. “What are you talking about?”

“Well, it’s Halloween. You’re supposed to dress up, not just come out as you are.”

Billy bristled at this, assuming the girl was making fun of him. “Hey, that’s not very nice.”

“She’s got a point,” the mailman chimed in. “Couldn’t your folks afford to get you a costume?”

“This is my costume, you bunch of jokesters,” Billy said then reached up and pulled the rubber goblin mask off his head.

The three children screamed and started backpedaling away from him. At first he thought this was just more of their cruel mockery, but then he saw that the werewolf and alien lady were reacting the same. Surely adults wouldn’t be so mean.

The baseball player bumped into the mailman who in turn bumped into the cheerleader. Their bags fell open, spilling out tangled mounds of worms and snails and snakes and toads. All three children toppled to the ground like dominos, and that was when their faces fell off.

Not their real faces, but the masks they wore.

Under the baseball player mask was an alien head that was a smaller replica of his mother’s; the mailman façade fell away to reveal a furry werewolf head; the cheerleader’s real countenance was so misshapen and foreign and hideous that Billy’s mind could barely comprehend it.

Now it was Billy who screamed and backpedaled. He fell onto his bottom again, but this time he barely registered the pain. He scrambled to his feet and started running away from the nightmare children. He could hear them shouting behind him, but he didn’t glance over his shoulder to see if they were pursuing him. He fled across the street, not even checking for traffic, and at the far curb he stumbled over the broken pavement and fell face-first into a large pile of leaves.

He sank in for what felt like miles, totally submerged in the leaves. They were all around him, scratching at his face, blinding him. It was as if he were drowning in the dead leaves. He kicked and writhed…and then screamed again when he felt hands on his arms. He beat at whatever monster was trying to get hold of him.

“Billy, son, it’s me! Calm down!”

The familiar voice registered, and Billy opened his eyes to see his father kneeling next to the pile of leaves, his arms held out. Billy leapt into those arms, wrapping his own around his father’s neck.

“Billy boy, I’m so sorry,” his father was saying, returning the tight hug. “I only let you out of my sight for a minute, and when I looked up again, I couldn’t find you anywhere. Scared me to death. Please forgive me, I should never have been so neglectful.”

“It’s my fault, Daddy! I should never have wandered off.”

His father pulled back, examining Billy with look and touch to make sure he was okay. “What happened to your mask and your trick-or-treat bag?”

“I guess I lost them.”

“It doesn’t matter. I promise, my phone is away for good tonight. We’ll hit every house in town.”

Billy looked around, finding himself back on the Jefferies Street he’d always known. There was the Haversham’s fence, and the flamingos and gnomes in the Stevens’ yard. Just down the road a bit he could see the oak with the tire swing hanging from one of its lower branches. Still, even though everything was once again familiar and well-lit, he sensed a darkness underneath it all, and the sound as a gust of wind sent the leaves stampeding across the pavement gave him chills.

“Can we just go home, Daddy?”

His father frowned at him. “Are you sure? I know how much you’ve been looking forward to tonight.”

“I’m getting a little old for Halloween. Let’s just go home, and maybe you can read me a story. Nothing scary though.”

“Sure thing, Billy Boy,” his father said with a smile, then he lifted Billy into his arms in a way he hadn’t in years.

As he was carried home, Billy buried his face in his father’s neck and tried to block out the sound of the autumn leaves.